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Theater owner aims to save the magic

Demetri Kouvalis with his late father Alexander restored Patio Theater. Now he’s trying raise money switch digital projectiso he won’t

Demetri Kouvalis, with his late father, Alexander, restored the Patio Theater. Now he’s trying to raise money to switch to digital projection so he won’t have to close. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 9, 2012 9:28AM

I was a lucky kid. Growing up in South Shore and Edgewater, I could walk to the movies. Theaters such as the Jeffery, Hamilton, Uptown and Riviera were around the corner.

Strolling out of those grand lobbies, I felt exhilarated. That magical world of Sinbad the Sailor or James Bond followed me out onto the comparatively drab sidewalks of Chicago.

A lot of that magic came from the theaters themselves. They were aging and faded, but the dim red, blue and golden lighting still cast an enchanting glow over the fanciful architecture.

Just as the movies transported you to a different, better world, so did the theaters.

Now most of those palaces are gone, and even fewer are still showing movies. Now we watch movies in a box or on a box.

That’s why I was glad to see the reopening and success of the Patio Theater at Irving and Austin in the Portage Park neighborhood.

Opened a year ago after being closed since 2001, the 1,500-seat single-screen Patio projects moving clouds across a ceiling dotted with twinkling stars. The Patio shows movies three to six weeks after they are first released and has been drawing good crowds with a five-buck admission and a large popcorn priced at $4.50.

It’s run by 23-year-old Demetri Kouvalis, who, with his late father, Alexander, restored the Spanish-Italianate interior to its 1920s elegance.

But clouding the picture is a move by Hollywood studios to eliminate film in favor of digital distribution. The last commercial movie on film could come as early as next year. Theaters will go digital or they’ll go dark.

Hollywood will save billions on film costs, but movie theaters have to spend up to $100,000 per screen for digital projection systems.

Which put Kouvalis in a bind. He doesn’t have the money to make the switch.

But he has found a unique way to ask people to help out. Through, a website that funds creative projects, Kouvalis is trying to raise $50,000 in pledges to help fund a digital conversion.

In return for the pledges, he offers everything from tickets and popcorn to theater tours and private screenings.

Fifty private screenings at the $250 pledge level already have sold out. With 12 days to go on Kickstarter, fans of the Patio have pledged more than $37,000. But if the $50,000 goal is not reached by July 20, the pledges will be canceled and Kouvalis will have to find another way.

Kouvalis is hopeful the appeal will meet the goal. I hope so too.

I know the days of walking to the neighborhood movie palace are gone forever. But it’s nice to have a few around just to see what the old days were like.

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